The idea to help people tell their Origin Story came from my 10-year-old son, who was obsessed with superheroes. He used to spend hours reading, drawing and telling me about his favourites.
One day he was telling me about Spiderman’s origin story and it struck me that I had spent most of my working life writing origin stories. In my case, about elite athletes, musicians, artists and successful business people rather than men in tights.
I worked as a journalist for 20 years and whenever I interviewed someone for a story I was more interested in their journey, not the destination. I wanted to know where they came from and why they were so passionate about what they did. What made them invest so much of themselves and dedicate so much time and energy into developing, harnessing and tapping into their particular superpower.
Now I’m not saying we all have a superpower. I don’t believe that but I am convinced we all have an Origin Story that can help us make sense of who we are, where we come from, and why we do what we do. By reflecting on your past, your story can also serve as a roadmap for your future.
It may not be as iconic as Spidermans or Wonder Woman but everyone has an Origin Story to tell. You may not feel like a superhero but like everyone else who runs a business, you started from humble beginnings.
Amazon was founded by a geek in a garage. Apple started with two geeks in a garage. Ray Kroc was selling milkshake mixers at the age of 52 when he bought the franchise rights to a hamburger stand and built it into McDonalds.
Every company starts out small. What makes good companies great is the choices the owners and founders make along the way. But they were all started by ordinary people just like you and me. It’s only in hindsight that we can trace the transformation from ordinary to extraordinary.
The beauty is that ‘Your Origin Story’ doesn’t require you to be a writer. You don’t have to be creative. You don’t have to be a storyteller. Because your story exists already. You’ve lived a life of highs and lows, of twists and turns, that explain who you are.
‘So what do you do?’ is a question a lot of people struggle to answer. Most of us default to our job title or launch into a rambling rant that’s different every time. And usually our answer doesn’t do a great job of summing up our past experiences, our wins and our losses and our expertise.
That’s what your Origin Story is designed to do. To draw on your past experiences and distil them into a powerful message. It’s designed to give you confidence and clarity. Your story explains the journey you’ve been on and why you’re uniquely qualified to do what you do. So why do most of us shy away from ever reflecting on the story of our lives?
According to the English writer/philosopher, Alain de Botton,
“we are reluctant historians of our own pasts,” conveniently ignoring the fact that “we are living the wide-open present through the narrow drama of the past.”
This “willed amnesia” is often a protective mechanism to forget the personalities, circumstances and experiences of our formative years.
“But it’s not simply that we’ve forgotten the past” writes de Botton in *The School of Life: An Emotional Education. “*We keep away from ourselves because much of what we could discover threatens to be agony,” and instead “we bury our personal stories beneath an avalanche of expertise.”
Passion and purpose
The people who can harness their expertise and pair it with a contagious passion and a clear purpose often go on to achieve great things. Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter, hired people based on their ability to articulate their purpose and communicate it clearly:
“…as you bring people into your company,” he said, “I think the most important question you ask them is: ‘Why are you here, why do you want to join this company? If you hear that purpose back, if you hear that passion around that purpose, it makes everything a whole lot easier. Any skill can be learned or taught, but passion cannot.”
Most of us leave it too late to reflect on our purpose, our passion, and our past. In Tuesdays with Morrie, the writer Mitch Albom documents his last conversations with his former college professor as he fights a losing battle with a terminal disease. Albom asks Morrie what would he have done differently and did he have any regrets?
“It’s what everyone worries about, isn’t it?” replied Morrie. “What if today were my last day on earth? [Our] culture doesn’t encourage you to think about such things until you’re about to die.”
“We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks — we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get in the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, ‘Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?’ You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won’t just happen automatically.”
From minor to major
You need someone or something to shake you out of your blinkered view of your life. It might be a traumatic experience like losing a loved one or getting fired from your job. Or it might be something as mundane as browsing in a Dublin bookshop one Saturday afternoon in August 2008.
I had a ‘Que Sera Sera’ attitude to life in my 20’s. It doesn’t matter if I study or work hard, I thought, because ‘what will be, will be.’ Except it did matter. I was 29 and working in a job I hated.
Then, Tony Robbins changed my life. Or rather his book ‘Awaken the Giant Within‘ did. Robbins’ book forced me to accept responsibility for my life, grow a pair, and chase my dreams of being a writer.
“Most people fail in life because they major in minor things,” wrote Robbins. “[O]ne of life’s major lessons is learning to understand what makes us do what we do. What shapes human behaviour? The answers to this question provide critical keys to shaping your own destiny.”
The answers lie in your Origin Story.
We should all take time to look backwards, identify the key moments in our lives, join the dots and discover our Origin Story.